Blow to Netanyahu as top Israeli politician faces corruption charges

 

Jerusalem

The former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ex-nightclub bouncer who became one of the country's most powerful and controversial politicians, faces career oblivion after being charged with corruption.

The Moldovan-born leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home") party had joined with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party to present a joint list for the general election on 22 January. The merger, designed to strengthen Mr Netanyahu's hand, could now cost him dearly.

Mr Lieberman was indicted at Jerusalem Magistrates Court today on charges of fraud and breach of trust. The 54-year-old is accused of engineering the appointment of an Israeli ambassador to Latvia as payment for a political favour related to another corruption case against Mr Lieberman.

He formally resigned as Foreign Minister two weeks ago after three stormy years in the post, in response to a milder indictment. At the time, he requested an expedited process in order to clear his name before Israel's election. It now seems unlikely that the trial will be concluded by then.

The revised indictment filed by the Israeli state prosecutor carries a charge of "moral turpitude" that would ban Mr Lieberman from holding public office for seven years. A key witness, according to the charge sheet, is the Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former ally and party colleague who was dumped by Mr Lieberman from the election list, effectively ending his political career.

A spokesperson for Yisrael Beiteinu said Mr Lieberman "wants to see the matter quickly resolved in court".

Mr Lieberman's increasingly tangled legal predicament is likely to increase the problems facing Mr Netanyahu.

Far from strengthening his position, since merging the election lists of the two parties, polls predict their combined strength in the new Knesset will fall from 42 seats to 37 seats.

Likud appears to be losing support to the hardline pro-settler Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett, a rising new star who, like Mr Lieberman, is a former chief of staff to Mr Netanyahu.

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